Retiring July 1st, Martha Smith, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, spent her 30 year career helping others “learn to grow”

(MILAN, Ill) University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Martha Smith, who spent her 30 plus-year career helping others learn to grow, will have time to do more growing of her own when she retires at the end of June. Her 10 years of service in the Henry Mercer, Rock Island and Stark Counties Extension unit is just one decade of a distinguished career.

The seeds of her love of horticulture were planted by her mom Marguerite Lamb who worked as a perennial grower for Flower Wood in Crystal Lake, Ill. Martha would spend her high school summers working at the gift shop and helping mom with the perennials.  After high school she enrolled in Eastern Illinois University to study botany, but soon found she was more interested in the care and uses of plants, so she transferred to University of Illinois and majored in ornamental horticulture.

At U of I, Martha especially enjoyed her time working in the greenhouses with Professor John Culbert who taught design and was also the campus floriculturist who started the Flower Show – which has become a U of I Mom’s Day campus tradition.

After graduation, she gained experience working for different growers and nurseries including in floriculture at Vans Wholesale Florist in Chicago, as a horticulture broker for Pitulla Sales in Crystal Lake, Ill, and as a nursery manager for Boulevard Flowers in Colonial Heights, Va.  In 1994, Martha was hired as the Horticulture Agent for Orange County Cornell Cooperative Extension in Middletown, N.Y. There she began to lead horticulture education programs, train Master Gardeners, and work with colleagues as part of the Hudson River Valley Horticulture Group, putting on Gardener’s Days and other joint programs across a 6 county region. 

Martha started working for University of Illinois Extension when she and her husband Sid Smith moved to Monmouth Ill. where he opened a dental practice to be closer to his family.

Over the years Martha served Quincy, Macomb, Rock Island and Galesburg. She was one of six Extension horticulture educators who travelled the state, leading Master Gardener trainings and other horticulture programs. Each educator had an area of specializations – and Martha’s was ornamentals.

Throughout her tenure Martha brought many excellent programs to Illinois Extension. In 2002 she started the Four Seasons of Gardening as a pilot program for which she won a prestigious award from the National Association of County Agriculture Agents for recognition of Excellence in the Landscape Horticulture Program in 2004. Today, Four Seasons has become one of the most popular programs offered by the Illinois Extension Horticulture Team.

Martha helped to develop the Speaker’s Bureau, a series of programs that Master Gardeners can adapt and present to community groups on a wide variety of topics – complete with slides, script, handouts, and evaluations. She also started Nursery School: Lessons in Gardening back in 1996, which continues today. It is a popular day-long gardening symposium offered in the Quad Cities each winter featuring prominent speakers on a wide variety of topics.

In 2010, Illinois Extension went through a reorganization and Martha began to serve as horticulture educator for Henry, Mercer, Rock Island and Stark Counties. She developed more innovative local programming including the annual Harvest of Horticulture event in Aledo, Midwinter Horticulture Day in Geneseo, a pollinator garden at the Mercer County fairgrounds, and three state Master Gardener Conferences.

Martha is a Certified Arborist, and in 2010 joined a state-wide Emerald Ash Borer education program that included setting up kiosks at rest stops across Illinois about the mitigation efforts to stop the spread of the insects. She is also a member of the Perennial Plant Association and served as the Central Regional Director for 6 years during which she put on a national symposium in St. Louis. She was also the Central Regional Secretary of the American Conifer Society.

As her final year with Extension was wrapping up, Martha again stepped up to the plate to offer new programs during the pandemic. She worked with Iowa State Extension to offer two virtual gardening symposiums “Gardening in the Air” with over 1800 registrants from all across the USA. Martha also partnered with Bi-State Conservation Action Network to present the "Nature and Wellness: A Strategy for Strength during a Pandemic" series which featured renowned speakers who shared their research on ways that nature can help people heal. She partnered with the Rock Island Public Library to offer virtual vegetable gardening classes via ZOOM on a wide variety of topics, and led a popular video series “Martha’s Shed Talks” from her own home garden featuring the unique plants and flowers she grows.

Martha fondly remembers the many excellent educators and staff she teamed up with over the years. She also enjoyed working with the Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists. “I love meeting them. They come from all walks of life and all ages and stages. There is a misconception that they are all older. The majority are between the ages of 48-60. I’ve met some wonderful people in that program.”

When you love what you do, the decision to retire is a hard one to make and Martha is certainly leaving at the top of her game. She is looking forward to having more time to spend in her beautiful home garden which she’s been turning into an oasis since 1994. The landscape includes unique beech, maple and gingko trees, dwarf conifers, amazing perennials, a 3500 gallon pond with waterfall – and a marvelous gardening shed. She is fortunate that husband Sid shares her love of gardening. Together they will continue to tend their plants and spend as much time as they can travelling – including visits across the USA in their newly acquired RV. Come winter she’ll be happily quilting and staying cozy at home. But don’t fret - you will probably find her giving a presentation or two at an Extension or horticulture event near you, after all, she has a passion for helping others learn to grow!